A Whole Lot of Pretty and A Whole Lot of Crazy

David Ayer makes ugly films. I don’t necessarily mean that as an insult, the world can be an ugly place. But between movies like End of Watch, Sabotage, Fury, and now Suicide Squad, the man’s movies are so drenched in blood and grime that I really think the man needs a hug.

I had high hopes for Suicide Squad. It boasts a great cast and had a ton of potential. It doesn’t live up to all of that potential, but it manages to be entertaining.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie is a mess. But at least it’s an enjoyable mess.

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Suicide Squad is the latest installment of DC and Warner Brothers’ series of films based on DC Comics characters. The previous two installments, Man of Steel and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, were met with mixed reactions, to say the least. So was Suicide Squad. It got dreadful reviews but still scored a whopping $130 million-plus opening weekend.

One of the biggest problems people had with the previous DC movies was that they were too dark and stodgy. They didn’t capture the same sense of fun that Marvel has done so well with in its series of interconnected blockbusters over the last decade or so. To writer/director David Ayer’s credit, his film is funnier than the previous ones, there are quite a few funny moments and one-liners.

But like I said, the movie is a mess. Let’s start with the characters. There are a lot of them in the movie, but there are really only two worth caring about. Those two are Harley Quinn and Floyd Lawton, aka Deadshot, played by Margot Robbie and Will Smith respectively. Deadshot is the most skilled assassin in the world, expert with every type of firearm, including a musket we’re told, although unfortunately we never get to see him use one.

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Harley Quinn is the Joker’s former psychiatrist turned sort-of-girlfriend, although their relationship is unconventional to say the least. Both characters, along with many others in the movie, are making their big-screen debuts. The other characters are enjoyably quirky, but most of them aside from Harley and Deadshot have little background given to them and little personality beyond their obvious quirks.

Those quirks are largely tied in to their choices of weaponry. Captain Boomerang is a beer-swilling Australian who throws boomerangs, Katana is a samurai chick whose sword holds the souls of people it’s killed (?), Killer Croc is a giant lizard monster, Slipknot is a guy who’s really good with ropes, and Diablo is a Latino gangbanger with flame powers. There’s also Dr. June Moone, who just so happens to be possessed by an ancient spirit known as Enchantress. Sounds like a motley crew, right?

The movie desperately wants to be DC’s version of Guardians of the Galaxy, but it’s nowhere near as coherent. The motley crew described above is recruited by a government operative named Amanda Waller, an infamous hardass who implants the members of the squad with explosive devices in their necks to ensure their compliance. She thinks of them as the perfect black-ops crew, skilled in causing mayhem and completely deniable by the government if anything goes wrong.

Things go wrong rather quickly, with (spoiler alert) Enchantress promptly stirring up trouble by resurrecting her ancient evil brother and turning people into weird-looking gooey black creatures. I thought of them as mushroom zombies because they reminded me of some of the enemies from a video game called The Last of Us, which were infected with some kind of fungal virus (or would that be viral fungus?).

If all of this sounds vague, it’s because I don’t know how else to describe it. And all of this happens so fast that the viewer barely has any time to process it. In other words, the movie’s pacing is completely off. The squad is introduced and then things go from 0 to 100 in no time flat, and the squad is helicoptered in to a besieged city to stop the mushroom zombies spawned by the evil Enchantress.

I love (fictional) villains, and part of the reason I was so excited for this movie was because it is all about the bad guys. “Stay evil, doll-face,” Deadshot says to Harley at one point. But of course the problem is that the villains have to become the heroes in order to save the day, and the central antagonist they face is spectacularly uninteresting.

Probably the movie’s best-known character is the Joker, played here by Jared Leto. Words cannot describe Leto’s horrific appearance. Short, neon-green hair, red lips, metal-capped teeth, covered in tattoos (including one on his forehead reading “Damaged”), with pale, corpselike flesh, he resembles nothing so much as a grinning, green-haired zombie.

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Much of the film’s marketing centered around Leto’s Joker, but he has very little screentime. He pops up intermittently but has no prominent role in the story. He’s a bit player more than anything else, and he doesn’t have a standout scene like the interrogation scene in The Dark Knight or the museum vandalism in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. Despite his nightmare-inducing visage, he’s not very memorable as an actual character.

We see part of the beginning of his relationship with Harley, including a rather upsetting scene where he makes her jump off a ledge into a vat of chemical sludge to demonstrate her loyalty to him, and there’s a brief confrontation between him and Ben Affleck’s Batman. The Caped Crusader makes a very brief cameo appearance, he’s in the movie for less than five minutes. There’s also a surprise cameo from another Justice League member, but I won’t spoil which one.

There are fun action sequences, and each member of the squad gets to kick some ass, with one notable exception. There’s one character who exists for the sole purpose of getting his head blown off in order to demonstrate that Waller wasn’t bluffing about the explosive devices implanted in their necks.

It is still fun to see these characters onscreen together, especially as a comics fan. I liked how the character of Killer Croc was done entirely practically, instead of a digital creation the actor was subjected to what I’m sure was like six hours in the makeup chair. It’s a hefty commitment to a character who (surprise) has little influence on the outcome of the story, and it’s nice to see the filmmakers’ dedication to bringing these characters to life, even if the end results are somewhat less than satisfying.

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A better Suicide Squad movie is the animated movie Batman: Assault on Arkham, which despite its title is a Suicide Squad movie in all but name. It features many of the same characters (such as Harley, Joker, Deadshot and Captain Boomerang) and a much more coherent plot. In it, the Squad must infiltrate Arkham Asylum to confront the Riddler, who is up to something nefarious, and things get complicated when Joker gets involved. Batman is more of a peripheral character, stalking the villainous characters from the shadows.

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It’s a plot I wish the movie had followed more closely. The film’s trailers made it look like Joker was the central antagonist, but he absolutely isn’t. The story is scattershot and the movie ends up being a hodgepodge full of fun but jumbled action and an overabundance of characters and subplots, most of which are either not very interesting or just outright bizarre. For example, the movie tries to work in a redemption subplot for the flame-powered Latino gangbanger, which feels shoehorned in and completely out of place.

Writer/director David Ayer wants so badly to make DC’s Guardians of the Galaxy, but he rushes it. He even tries to ape that movie’s wonderful use of 70’s pop music, but again, he rushes it. In its early going, the movie jumps from song to song so quickly that each one barely has time to register. Part of what made the music in Guardians so effective was that the movie spaced out the songs, lending each one its own impact. But Ayer crams them all together one after the other, rendering them much less effective.

I had such high hopes for this movie. But sadly it’s a mess. I don’t hate it, though. Much like The Lone Ranger or Batman Returns, it’s deeply, profoundly flawed, but I don’t hate it. It manages to be more consistently entertaining than Batman V Superman, and its sheer spastic weirdness makes it completely unlike any other movie now in theaters. It features a handful of good performances, most notably by Will Smith and Margot Robbie, who are the movie’s best assets.

It’s a stylish movie and the special effects, makeup and costumes look great, but it’s a shame that all of it is in support of such a clunky plot. “That’s a whole lot of pretty and a whole lot of crazy,” a prison guard says about Harley early in the film. It ends up being an apt description of the film itself.

The movie is choppy as hell, but I’ll still pick it up on Blu-Ray and watch all the special features. I’m not sure what that says about me, but maybe we should all be more worried about David Ayer. Seriously, someone give the man a hug and maybe a cookie.

Bourne Again

In many trilogies, there is at least one entry which stands out as being not quite as good as the rest. The black sheep of the family, so to speak. The original Bourne trilogy is an exception to this. The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum are all excellent films and it’s hard to pick a favorite among the three.

Now, nearly ten years after Matt Damon’s previous Bourne film, we have a new one. And no, I am not forgetting about The Bourne Legacy from 2012. The Bourne Legacy is a decent movie, but it feels aimless and doesn’t really justify its own existence. Bourne without Bourne just doesn’t work.

Fortunately, the real Bourne is back, and his latest film is directed by Paul Greengrass, who also made The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Greengrass is a kinetic action director whose handheld camera style creates riveting and immersive action films. Other directors tend to misuse the handheld camera techniques and create action sequences that are hard for viewers to follow. But Greengrass knows how to make it work, and the action sequences he’s crafted in his Bourne films are among some of my all-time favorites.

His latest film, simply titled Jason Bourne, delivers on the white-knuckle action but noticeably struggles in other departments. The movie’s biggest problem is that the story, which Greengrass himself co-wrote, is frankly not very interesting.

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Part of it once again has to do with an incident from Bourne’s past, which involves his reasons for joining the original Treadstone program which turned him into a super-assassin. This aspect of the plot is intriguing, but unfortunately the movie doesn’t stick with it. Instead, it devotes far too much screentime to a boring subplot involving a young social media tycoon (and obvious Mark Zuckerberg clone) and the CIA’s attempts to get him to let the CIA use his social media platform to spy on people.

That’s all well and good, but why the hell is it in this movie? The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve wondered what it has to do with the story, since it is only tangentially connected to Bourne himself. As far as I can tell, the only thing the whole boring subplot accomplishes is getting the major players in the same location for the climactic showdown. That’s fine, but why spend so much time on it? It kills the pacing of the movie, and every time the movie cuts back to the boring Zuckerberg clone, I found myself wondering if I was watching a badass spy flick or The Social Network.

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What the hell, Paul Greengrass? The stuff about Bourne is what the audience wants to see. And the part of the story that actually does involve Bourne is compelling. Not quite as compelling as the first three films, but intriguing nonetheless, especially considering that Damon and Greengrass’ previous Bourne flick came out nearly a decade ago. The social media subplot feels like padding the film just doesn’t need. Did the studio demand a two-hour running time or something? What’s wrong with an hour and forty-five minutes?

But enough about that. I don’t want to talk about it anymore because it ticks me off that it stands out so much, since the rest of the movie is solid across the board.

Matt Damon is in his early forties now but still brings the raw physicality that Jason Bourne is known for, as well as making him a character the audience can root for. Tommy Lee Jones plays the crusty director of the CIA, and it’s hard to imagine an actor better suited to the role of a crusty CIA director than Tommy Lee Jones, except for maybe Clint Eastwood.

Also new to the series is recent Oscar winner Alicia Vikander, who plays Jones’ character’s protégé, Heather Lee. I liked Vikander as an actress, she’s clearly very talented, but her character is frustrating. Very little background is given for her and I was left wondering what her motivation was for most of the movie. She flip-flops allegiances several times without much explanation given as to why she does so, which is kind of baffling.

As with most Bourne movies, there’s a badass assassin out to kill Bourne, this time played by French actor Vincent Cassel, taking over from the likes of Clive Owen and Karl Urban, who played some of the assassins on Bourne’s tail in the previous movies. Cassel’s character has a vendetta against Bourne that makes things between them personal, and proves to be a strong nemesis.

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Despite the shaky plot, Greengrass delivers on the action. The Bourne series has always been known for its car chases, and the latest entry delivers two epic chase sequences that bookend the film. The first is set in Athens during a political demonstration that quickly escalates into a full-fledged riot. The second takes place on the Las Vegas strip. Both sequences are every bit as exhilarating as any of the excellent action sequences from the previous films.

There’s also a nice bit of schadenfreude at play, since in the opening set piece Bourne and Nikki (played by Julia Stiles, reprising her role from the earlier movies) are pursued relentlessly by Cassel’s character, but in the climactic Vegas chase the hunter has become the hunted as it is Bourne who relentlessly pursues Cassel. Unfortunately for Bourne, Cassel has hijacked an armored police vehicle and uses it to plow through other cars as if they were made of cardboard.

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I enjoyed Jason Bourne, it delivers on the white-knuckle car chases and brutal hand-to-hand combat the series is known for, and the acting is solid. Sadly, it’s let down by unnecessary subplots and shaky characterization. It’s my least favorite of Damon’s Bourne films (again, I’m not counting The Bourne Legacy here, my feelings about that film will be the subject of their own write-up). Here’s hoping that, if they decide to make more Bourne films, they tighten up the story a bit. But despite its flaws it’s still a solid action flick and as far as belated sequels go it’s a damn sight better than, say, Independence Day: Resurgence, and is well worth seeing for fans of the Bourne franchise.